Monday, June 17, 2013

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of ScienceThe Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I am no scientist, but I like reading about science. I make for a difficult audience for science writers in that my understanding of all science is flawed, primarily theoretical, and wanes more than the moon (Who gave us the moon, indeed, Bill O'Reilly).

So, once again, I found an interesting looking book at the store with a title and book jacket description which piqued my interest. Angier's books promised to get me up to speed with all the developments in the scientific community, fostered by testimonial evidence culled from hundreds of interviews and other personal sources with which the writers was familiar.

At first, this is exactly what I got, and I really liked reading the alternating perspectives between a shifting mass of scientific voices and Angier. It was a clever way to assert one's own authority: aligning oneself with a multitude of expert voices by co-opting their ideas. The first two chapters on thinking scientifically and probabilities were actually quite good.

As the book progressed through the more hardcore science-y things (like physics, two types of chemistry and so on), the voices of the scientific community fell distant behind Angier's own understanding. At times, Angier was genuinely witty, and at times quite poetic. She seemed to favor clever word twists to drive home a point, and at times I was really impressed by this.

It was, however, a trick that became quickly played out. All the narrative flash was not enough to cover the fact that she all but stopped quoting other scientists in her book. By the end, I found myself getting quite annoyed with her obvious ploys to be clever.

Everything had to be so fucking clever.

By the end, I was drawn to the book far less than I was at the beginning, which is exactly the opposite reaction a novelist wants, particularly thriller and crime novelist who live on the tension of unresolved quarrels. The final chapter, on of my favorite pop science-y things to read about...took me forever to finish, because I was getting so tired of the puns and word-play to science reference ratio.

That said, if you don't know much about science, Angier is good at making common-sense connections between complex idea and layman's understandings. The beginning of the book is particularly good. For that, if nothing else, it's worth a look.

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